I“am the feminist Pope.”
These were the words of Pope John Paul II at the end of an audience in Rome two weeks ago that I was lucky enough to attend. The Pope was speaking to a group of doctors, ethicists, and activists gathered for a conference in Rome entitled “Women's Health Issues,” and co-sponsored by Georgetown University and the Pontifical Academy for Life.
What I heard at that conference about work being done all over the world—inspired often by the vast and moving teaching of John Paul II on the dignity of human life—convinced me more than ever that the Pope knew whereof he spoke.
Several years ago, the Holy See made an international splash when it intervened at two U.N. conferences—one on population and development and a second on women—against the creation of an international “right” to abortion. The Holy See was widely portrayed as the enemy of women's progress. Precious little attention was paid to the strong interventions of the Holy See at these same conferences, on behalf of women's equality, women's education, fair credit practices toward women, and women's right to quality health care.
Why? Because of a tendency, in the United States and elsewhere, to reduce all questions about women's equality to a debate about abortion. But what are the issues that matter most to women in the day-to-day work of their lives? The basics. Their health, the health of their families, their right to practice their faith, domestic economic situations, access to education, the threat of violence, and so forth.
This recent conference, however, spoke to women's hearts—spoke to their real concerns. It went a long way toward answering the question, “What does the Pope mean when he calls himself a ‘feminist’?”
‘What does the Pope mean when he calls himself a ‘feminist’?’
Perhaps no speaker at the conference better expressed a Christian feminism than Dr. Robert Walley, a Canadian professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Walley is also a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and a trusted advisor to the Holy See.
The doctor lived and worked in Africa for decades and saw firsthand the results of first world countries “telling” women that what they needed most of all for health, happiness, and prosperity, was fewer children. Foreign funds poured in for huge quantities of birth control, but not for the simplest, easily controlled medical problems. Walley talked with anger about the problem of obstetrical fistula, the number one cause of death and disability among women of reproductive age in the Third World. (The problem is so easily controlled in the First World that one of the only clinics opened to address it, closed in New York in the 1920s; there was no longer a call for its services.)
Obstetrical fistula is the condition wherein a woman's excretory organs are damaged and weakened as a result of labor and delivery. The woman leaks excrement permanently. She is ostracized from her community, and even condemned as a “prostitute.” The shame is not hers, however. It belongs to those who know that the solutions to obstetrical fistula are well known and cost little, but fail to offer them. Instead, they are busy telling her not to get pregnant in the first place—even offering her a free abortion, after which, Walley pointed out, she is returned to the poverty from whence she came.
As a result, Walley and other Catholic ob-gyns have formed MaterCare, a medical care organization that has opened a clinic in Ghana to treat obstetrical fistula. They also intend to be an international force of doctors and ethicists helping mothers receive necessary health care and helping them avoid abortion throughout the world.
Upholding the truth in love. There is no other description for what Walley and his colleagues are doing. Their inspiration and guiding light? Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). In that encyclical, the Pope specifically calls for the creation of a “new feminism” in service of life. One that rejects violence and overcomes all discrimination and exploitation. Walley heard that call. He puts his science, his person, and most of all, his heart into responding.
If this is what the Pope's new feminism looks like, I can't imagine anything more beautiful for women, children, and families. Sign me up.
Helen Alvarè is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.